Taking a stand

When I wrote a blog post two weeks ago about libraries, EBSCO and Harvard Business Publications, I was attending the eIFL General Assembly in Istanbul, and I think the message I wanted to convey — that librarians need to take a stand on this issue and not meekly agree to HBP’s new licensing fee — was partly inspired by my experiences at the eIFL GA.

Having attended two eIFL events in the past four years, I have learned that many U.S. librarians are not aware of the work eIFL does, so let me take a moment to review who they are.  The core mission of eIFL is to “enable access to knowledge in developing and transition countries.”  They are a small and distributed staff that work on several projects, including support for the development of library consortia in their partner countries, negotiating licenses for electronic resources on behalf of those consortia, developing capacity for advocacy focused on copyright reform and open access, and encouraging the use of free and open source software by libraries.  The key clientele for eIFL are academic libraries, and all of the country coordinators and delegates that I met at the General Assembly were from colleges and universities.  But eIFL also has a project to help connect communities to information through public libraries in the nations they serve.

The delegates at the General Assembly came from Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa.  These librarians face a variety of local conditions and challenges, but they share a common commitment to improving information access and use for the communities they serve.  It was the depth and strength of that commitment that I found so inspiring at the event.  I wanted to encourage U.S. librarians to take a stand because these librarians from all over the world are themselves so consistently taking a stand.

One way these librarians are taking a stand is in negotiations with publishers.  There were lots of vendor and publishing representatives at the General Assembly, and time for each delegation to speak with each vendor (“speed dating”) was built in to the schedule.  Although these meetings were short, they were clearly intense.  One vendor rep told me that they were difficult because the librarians had diverse needs and were well-versed for the negotiations.  He also told me that he enjoyed the intensity because it went beyond “just selling.”  And that is the key.  These librarians are supporting each other, learning from each other and from speakers at the event what they can expect and what they can aspire to with their electronic resources, and taking those aspirations, along with their local needs, into negotiations.  They are definitely not “easy” customers because they are well-informed and willing to fight for the purchases that best serve their communities.  Because they cannot buy everything, they buy very carefully and drive hard bargains.

Another area in which these eIFL librarians are taking a stand is in regard to copyright in their individual nations.  I saw several presentations, from library consortia in Poland, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Zimbabwe, about how they had made their library consortia into recognized stakeholders in discussions of copyright reform on the national level.  One consortium is offering small grants for librarians to become advocates for fair copyright; another has established a copyright “help desk” to bring librarians up to speed.  One of the eIFL staff emphasized to me the importance of this copyright work.  Copyright advocacy is part of the solution, I was told, to the problem of burdensome licensing terms that have often been seen in those parts of the world.

One story was particularly interesting to me.  An African librarian told how publishers in her country often view libraries and librarians as a major “enemy” because it is believed that they encourage book piracy.  Through the consortium of academic libraries, librarians have now become actively involved in a major publishing event that is held annually in her country, and recently the libraries were asked to nominate a board member to that group.  As a result of these efforts, the relationship between librarians and publishers has improved, and there is much more understanding (thus less suspicion) about library goals and priorities.

eIFL librarians are also taking a stand amongst their own faculties by advocating for open access. There were multiple stories about new open access policies at different universities, and about the implementation of repository software.  There were also multiple presentations to convey the advantages that open resources offer to education.  These presentations discussed MOOCs (that was me), open data, alternative methods of research assessment and text-mining.  If these sound familiar, they should.  In spite of difficult conditions and low levels of resourcing, these librarians are investigating the same opportunities and addressing the same challenges as their U.S. counterparts.  Just to illustrate the breadth of the interest in the whole topic of openness, I wrote down the countries from which the librarians who grilled me about MOOCs came when I spent an hour fielding questions; they came from Azerbaijan, Lesotho, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Malawi, Maldives, Macedonia, Fiji, China, Thailand, Ghana, Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Swaziland and Mongolia.  They came with questions that challenged my assumptions (especially about business models) and deepened my own understanding of the international impact of open online courses.

There is one last conversation I had that I want to report on, both for its own sake and because of how it illuminates the eIFL mission.  Mark Patterson, the editor of the open access journal eLife, was at the GA to talk about research assessment.  Later I sat and talked with him about eLife.  He told me that the most exciting thing about eLife was its model whereby scientists reclaim the decision about what is important to science.  While the editors of subscription-based journals must always strive for novelty in order to defend and extend their competitiveness, eLife and, presumably, other open access journals, have scientists making decisions about what is important to science, whether or not it is shiny and new.  Sometimes there is an article that is really important because it refines some idea or process in a small way, or because of its didactic value.  Such articles would escape the notice of many subscription journals, but the editors at eLife can catch them and publish them.  And the reason this seems to fit so well into the eIFL context is because it is about self-determination.  Whether I was talking about open access journals with Mark or to the country delegates at the GA, this was the dominant theme, the need to put self-determination at the center of scholarly communications systems, from publishing to purchasing.